YES! But How? :: Solar Hot Water

If you're looking for practical ways to live sustainably, just ask us.


Looking for ways to green your home? Installing a solar water heater will curb your carbon footprint and save you money in the long term.

Hot water typically accounts for around a third of your household power bill. Solar hot water systems are pricey, but energy savings alone will repay the investment in four to eight years. With routine maintenance, solar thermal arrays last 40 years or longer, eliminating more than 100 tons of carbon emissions.

Solar water heaters come in two basic configurations. Flat panel systems are less expensive and best suited to southern latitudes where hard freezes are uncommon. Evacuated tube set-ups are better for colder climates and produce more hot water per square foot, making up for their higher price. All solar water heaters supplement, rather than replace, existing water heating systems. A solar array usually preheats water, leaving the final few degrees to an on-demand or conventional batch heater. In summer months and southern states virtually all household hot water needs can be met by solar heating. Even regions along the northern border of the U.S. can produce over half of their hot water through solar.

Conservation is key to making solar hot water systems work. “The best thing about it is that it requires rethinking your household’s relationship to the sun,” says Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn, YES! creative director and owner of an evacuated-tube system. “Can’t take a shower until midday, when the water heats up. Can’t wash whites in hot water unless I wait for a sunny day.” Solar water heaters are a great option for folks who are excited to adjust their habits and monitor meeting their family’s needs renewably.

Solar hot water systems range from $6,600 to $13,000 installed, and tax incentives of up to $2,000 are available to cushion the cost. Solar water heating is an investment that will improve the value of your home and our planet.

Interested? size and cost calculator; tax incentives

—Anna Stern


What’s up with compostable plastics? Are they really as green as they seem?

Americans use 500 million tons of petroleum-based plastics every year, accounting for nearly 10% of annual U.S. oil consumption. Bioplastics—all plastics made from plants—are an exciting alternative, but may not yet be a silver bullet.

Most bioplastics on the market today are made from corn, including Polylactide (PLA) and Mater-Bi, the two you are most likely to encounter as a spoon or sack. Manufacturing a pound of petro-plastic generates a whopping 2-3 pounds of carbon dioxide, compared to as little as 0.28 pounds of CO2 for a pound of PLA.

Both PLA and Mater-Bi are “compostable” according to industry standards that assume the conditions of commercial composting facilities. However, research indicates that corn-based cutlery can take upwards of two years to break down in home composting systems. NatureWorks, the leading U.S. bioplastic producer, explicitly “does not recommend PLA for use in home composting.”

And don’t toss bioplastic waste into the recycling bin: corn-based plastics contaminate and degrade recyclable petro-plastics such as PET. Today most bioplastics end up in landfills where, as they degrade without oxygen, the corn compounds release methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

What’s more, NatureWorks’ patented PLA is sourced in part from genetically modified corn, and NatureWorks itself is a joint venture of agribusiness giant Cargill.

For now, your best bioplastic bet is a BioBag made of certified GMO-free Mater-Bi. Ranging from shopping sacks to lawn and leaf bags, thin plastic BioBags will decompose in the backyard within a matter of months rather than years. Check them out at

—Anna Stern


How can I convert my Toyota Prius hybrid into a plug-in hybrid?

A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) is a car that runs on electricity when its battery has enough charge, runs as a gas-electric hybrid when its battery is low, and can be plugged into a wall outlet to charge when it is not in use. PHEVs have the climate-friendly benefits of an electric car with the long range of a gas-powered vehicle.

Since major auto manufacturers are not currently building PHEVs, some intrepid individuals and companies have converted standard hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, into plug-ins. There are companies around the country that will do the conversion for you, but they are concentrated in California. You can find a list at Be warned: a conversion isn’t cheap—it will likely cost you more than $10,000.

If you are a mechanic, engineer, or electrician with the know-how and tools to pull off a difficult job like this, you might want to consider converting a hybrid yourself, which brings the price down to about $6,000. A good place to start would be the Prius Plus wiki at They have an open source design for adding standard lead-acid car batteries and a charger to your Prius, giving it an all-electric range of around 15 to 20 miles per charge.

You can also get a PHEV without any of this hassle if you are willing to wait until 2010 when several are scheduled to make it onto the market, including a plug-in Prius and the Chevy Volt.

—Jon Sayer


What’s the best way to support musicians instead of big corporations?

The most direct way to cut out the middleman is to go to a concert and purchase an album directly from the band. You can see your favorite musicians perform, contribute to ticket revenue, and give the band what the retailer would have taken.

But say you live in the middle of Nebraska and concert-going isn’t an option. Welcome to the world of digital music downloads. CDbaby, Amie Street, IODA, TuneCore, and Topspin Media are online distributors that return some of the highest revenue shares to artists.

Glenn Peoples, founder of, a blog offering analysis of the music industry, suggests checking out the band’s website to see if you can purchase music straight from them.

Artists with the know-how can set up links on their homepage to sell music or even release albums for free and ask only for donations.

Also, don’t forget other merchandise—T-shirts, stickers, and pins—benefits the musicians, making you a walking poster of mad pride and providing free advertising for the band of your choice.

—Kim Nochi

Send questions to YES! But How?, 284 Madrona Way NE, Suite 116, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110 or to [email protected]

Our Issue 49 researchers:
Anna Stern, Jon Sayer, and Kim Nochi wrote this article as part of Food for Everyone, the Spring 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Anna Stern came to YES! after WWOOFing in Corsica and hopes to do some planting and growing of her own this spring. Jon Sayer plans to follow his internship with the YES! web team with a career as a Web designer or journalist. Kim Nochi, founder of the office “Cave Rave” dance parties, hopes the tradition continues even when she’s not around to lay down the beats.
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